Exiles From a City and From a Nation
by Cornel West
Published on Sunday, September 11, 2005 by the Observer/UK
[Dr Cornel West is professor of African American studies and religion at
Princeton University. His great grandfather was a slave. He is a rap artist
and appeared as Counselor West in Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions. ]
It takes something as big as Hurricane Katrina and the misery we saw among the
poor black people of New Orleans to get America to focus on race and poverty.
It happens about once every 30 or 40 years.
What we saw unfold in the days after the hurricane was the most naked
manifestation of conservative social policy towards the poor, where the
message for decades has been: 'You are on your own'. Well, they really were on
their own for five days in that Superdome, and it was Darwinism in action -
the survival of the fittest. People said: 'It looks like something out of the
Third World.' Well, New Orleans was Third World long before the hurricane.
It's not just Katrina, it's poverty. People were quick to call them refugees
because they looked as if they were from another country. They are. Exiles in
America. Their humanity had been rendered invisible so they were never given
high priority when the well-to-do got out and the helicopters came for the
few. Almost everyone stuck on rooftops, in the shelters, and dying by the side
of the road was poor black.
In the end George Bush has to take
responsibility. When [the rapper] Kanye West said the President does not care
about black people, he was right, although the effects of his policies are
different from what goes on in his soul. You have to distinguish between a
racist intent and the racist consequences of his policies. Bush is still a
'frat boy', making jokes and trying to please everyone while the Neanderthals
behind him push him more to the right.
Poverty has increased for the last four or five years. A million more
Americans became poor last year, even as the super-wealthy became much richer.
So where is the trickle-down, the equality of opportunity? Healthcare and
education and the social safety net being ripped away - and that flawed
structure was nowhere more evident than in a place such as New Orleans, 68 per
cent black. The average adult income in some parishes of the city is under
$8,000 (£4,350) a year. The average national income is $33,000, though for
African-Americans it is about $24,000. It has one of the highest city murder
rates in the US. From slave ships to the Superdome was not that big a
New Orleans has always been a city that lived on the edge. The white blues man
himself, Tennessee Williams, had it down in A Streetcar Named Desire
- with Elysian Fields and cemeteries and the quest for paradise.
When you live so close to death, behind the levees, you live more intensely,
sexually, gastronomically, psychologically. Louis Armstrong came out of that
unbelievable cultural breakthrough unprecedented in the history of American
civilization. The rural blues, the urban jazz. It is the tragi-comic lyricism
that gives you the courage to get through the darkest storm.
Charlie Parker would have killed somebody if he had not blown his horn. The
history of black people in America is one of unbelievable resilience in the
face of crushing white supremacist powers.
This kind of dignity in your struggle cuts both ways, though, because it does
not mobilize a collective uprising against the elites. That was the Black
Panther movement. You probably need both. There would have been no Panthers
without jazz. If I had been of Martin Luther King's generation I would never
have gone to Harvard or Princeton.
They shot brother Martin dead like a dog in 1968 when the mobilization of the
black poor was just getting started. At least one of his surviving legacies
was the quadrupling in the size of the black middle class. But Oprah [Winfrey]
the billionaire and the black judges and chief executives and movie stars do
not mean equality, or even equality of opportunity yet. Black faces in high
places does not mean racism is over.
Condoleezza Rice has sold her soul.
Now the black bourgeoisie have an even heavier obligation to fight for the 33
per cent of black children living in poverty - and to alleviate the spiritual
crisis of hopelessness among young black men.
Bush talks about God, but he has forgotten the point of prophetic Christianity
is compassion and justice for those who have least. Hip-hop has the anger that
comes out of post-industrial, free-market America, but it lacks the
progressiveness that produces organizations that will threaten the status quo.
There has not been a giant since King, someone prepared to die and create an
insurgency where many are prepared to die to upset the corporate elite. The
Democrats are spineless.
There is the danger of nihilism and in the Superdome around the fourth day,
there it was - husbands held at gunpoint while their wives were raped, someone
stomped to death, people throwing themselves off the mezzanine floor, dozens
It was a war of all against all - 'you're on your own' - in the centre of the
American empire. But now that the aid is pouring in, vital as it is, do not
confuse charity with justice. I'm not asking for a revolution, I am asking for
A Marshall Plan for the South could be the first step.